A warbling trumpet sound wanders across the valley. Must be mid-March for the sound can only mean the Sandhill Crane has returned. Having left the warmth of the south for northern places, the valley provides rest and food and thoughtfulness.
The arrival of the crane means it is time for spring tilling. Scattered tractor engines belch black smoke after their winter idleness. Then settle into smokeless back and forth movement across fields. Few in number this early in the season means the sound of a single tractor working the hop field a mile to the north can be distinguished from one disking a cornfield half mile to the east. Over the low growl of engines, a sound without equal encourages eyes to wander the sky.
Two factors work against your first glimpse of spring cranes. Their trumpet sound is heard for miles and by the time you hear it they’ve traveled a good stone’s throw from where they spoke. Then, the March sky is the gray of rain. Delineating between their gray bodies and the undulating grays of clouds takes persistence. However, the payoff is worth persistence and close listening.
A first spring sighting of a Sandhill Crane flock is a view one hopes will linger into that era after life is lived. Their over-reaching wingspans slipping across the sky is something of the ancient. And as a flight of dozens glide through the valley as if they are floating upon unseen swales, one experiences a gift. Of the ages.
Twenty-three settle upon the north end of the west pasture. It’s the first week of April. As soon as they land they point their bills south and begin feeding. Guards with long necks, regally straight, walk with an eye toward the strange and predator. Others feed. Soon there is a a changing of the guards. Guarders drop necks to feed and feeders rise to guard. The constant change from guard to feeder to guard is a communal act of safety, family survival, and natural relationship.
The eating Sandhill walk is as graceful as it is odd. Leaning forward over ridiculously long legs with backward knees seems it should come across as awkward. However, the lean comes with the long neck bent into a double U, one U upward the other downward—not unlike the p-trap under the kitchen sink—which gives the observer a natural sense of balance. This stance also places their bill perpendicular to the ground. Ready for feeding.
Step by step they feed across the field.
A tractor a few miles to the west fires up.